It takes a fire

by Lorin Michel Saturday, July 4, 2020 10:07 PM

Even by trump-error standards the last few months have been trying. The coronavirus, the crash of the economy, the continued killing of black Americans for fill-in-the-blank-while-black. Restrictions were lifted prematurely and now the virus has spiked to ridiculous highs and many who had gone back to work are out of work once again. There is simply not much If anything to celebrate. I know I have a hard time living up to this blog’s motto of “celebrate something.” Most days there is nothing. And so it has been for most of this error in time.


But last night, something happened that made me smile, that was cause for celebration. Let me tell you about it.


In addition to the coronavirus, which is surging here in Arizona (4,433 new cases yesterday, a total of 1,788 deaths out of 91,858 total), we’ve been on fire. Literally. Four weeks ago we had a brief evening storm. By brief, I mean a tiny burst of big ploppy rain drops, the kind that hit the ground and spread into miniscule puddles before immediately evaporating, accompanied by angry, jagged lightning. All lightning is angry but this seemed more irritated than normal. I can relate, what with the state of the world and all. We didn’t think much of it until we heard that the lightning had sparked a small brush fire over on the northwest side of town, near Oro Valley. We watched the local news as it grew and started to ooze east. We figured there was no way it could get all the way over here without being put out.


We figured wrong.


Within a week it was threatening the Catalina Mountains and burning down canyons toward homes. It continued its relentless march, consuming everything in its path as it moved toward Mount Lemmon and the sleepy town of Summerhaven. Summerhaven is nestled into a small space near our even smaller Ski Valley. For a couple of weeks each winter, if we have a good winter, there is skiing. But there are no resorts, and no hotels. It’s a day trip from Tucson, along 26 winding miles of Catalina Highway. One hundred and fifty seven people call Summerhaven home. There are two restaurants and a place where you can get a slice of pizza and a cookie. There is a post office and a general store. That’s it. Many people in Tucson have built weekend cabins, or chalets, up on the mountain, and in 2003, 340 of the homes and businesses, including the general store, burned in the Aspen fire.


On Tuesday, June 16, Summerhaven was evacuated because of the fire that started miles to the west of them. As I write this, they are still evacuated.


The fire, dubbed the Bighorn fire, has consumed 118,897 acres. There have been two team 1 units assigned to it. For days it raged out of control. The smoke was apocalyptic, billowing up and engulfing the Catalinas, a pseudo pyroclastic cloud of destruction threatening the town below, the town in its path, the wildlife, and the saguaros and prickly pear and ocotillo, the mesquite and palo verde trees, the firs and pines on the mountain.


Three days ago, we were a half mile away from the evacuation zone. The winds were 54 mph, the threat imminent. Temperatures were north of 110º.  And then we had another small storm, a splash of rain. The humidity rose, the heat dissipated. The fire fighters were able to get a better handle on it, and while it’s still burning, it is now 73+% contained. Hopefully soon, the people of Summerhaven can return to their homes and businesses. This time, not a single structure was lost.


Last night I went out to grab a pizza for dinner. As I drove down Catalina Highway toward town, I noticed cars gathering on the side of the road. Families poured out; collapsible chairs were set up. I picked up the pizza and started my way back up Cat Highway. More cars, more people, many now holding signs. Thank you firefighters. Our heroes. God bless the firefighters. We love you.





It was shift change, and the trucks were all coming off the mountain as they must do every night around 6:40. They had their red lights flashing without sirens. They drove down slowly, past the cheering crowds, pasts the kids jumping up and down, past the signs. And as they got past, they extinguished their red lights.


It was a sight to see, people cheering the people who had kept the fire away, kept them safe. People expressing gratitude to others. People acknowledging that they needed others. People welcoming strangers, firefighters they would never meet and hopefully never see again. It was amazing, and I was heartened. Maybe there is hope for us. Maybe, sometimes, there is still something to celebrate.


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